Chats to PS about AMA su­per­bike, Pops, GS 1000S, the Suzuka 8-hours, and his near-death 1985 crash

Wes Cooley and Pops Yoshimura were an AMA Su­per­bike and Suzuki 8-hour win­ning ma­chine. Their hey­day was when bru­tal one-litre fours ruled the planet. And this is how it was

Practical Sportsbikes (UK) - - Inside - WORDS MARK GRA­HAM PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BAUER ARCHIVE

EV­ERY LIFE has a be­gin­ning, a mid­dle (if you’re lucky) and an end – that’s for cer­tain.wes Cooley’s had one hell of a mid­dle, and one hopes the end is still a long way away.

The two times ama (Amer­i­can Mo­tor­cy­clist As­so­ci­a­tion) Su­per­bike Champ and twice win­ner of the Suzuka 8-hour might have met his maker at Sears Point Race­way, Sonoma, Cal­i­for­nia in 1985.A huge crash left him in a coma for 12 days. He broke five ver­te­brae, both fe­murs, and bat­tered his lungs and kid­neys to a life-threat­en­ing ex­tent. “The nurses said I should have been dead,” says wes. “And I don’t re­call a thing about it – the body’s way of say­ing it doesn’t want to re­mem­ber. But I’m a dirty, old, mean sono­fabitch. I’m al­ways gonna make it.”

Af­ter an abortive at­tempt at a come­back in 1987,Wester Steven Cooley faded into an unhappy, anony­mous ex­is­tence be­fore get­ting his life to­gether again and re­viv­ing the med­i­cal train­ing he aban­doned to go big-time rac­ing in 1976. Now af­ter a visit to this year’s ama Mid-ohio vin­tage meet­ing as Grand Mar­shal, and af­ter a few demo laps on his ti­tle-win­ning Yoshimura Suzuki GS1000, this gi­ant of su­per­bikes is back at the places he’s loved since he was a kid. Not rac­ing, but sim­ply back on the scene.and in a good place. Just be­ing wes Cooley again.

“I loved mo­tor­cy­cles from the get-go,” he says. His dad was a handy rider (both ‘pave­ment’ and dirt) as well as a motocross pro­moter when the sport went huge in the States in the early ’70s. wes and his mates would hap­pily help out as ‘corner work­ers’ at MX tracks Carls­bad and Sad­dle­back Park, and on tar­mac at River­side and wil­low Springs.wes rode a step-thru Suzuki 80, then a Ho­daka ace 90, un­til he was of­fered a go on a Greeves Sil­ver­stone at wil­low Springs aged 15.Then came his own tz250 and a first novice win in the ama Na­tional se­ries in 1973.A Don vesco tuned tz750 fol­lowed but wes never re­ally gelled with it. “Me and my fa­ther worked on it with Donny.and I’m not a good me­chanic. Two-strokes were al­ways a bit on/off for me, the four-strokes were nice and smooth.and when I went with Pops [Yoshimura] he looked af­ter the lot. Pops re­ally made things work for me.”

Wes be­gan a work­ing re­la­tion­ship with Pops and Fu­jio yoshimura in 1977 that was to last four years and pro­duce those two su­per­bike ti­tles in the cru­cible that was ama se­ries at the time. Be mind­ful his chief ri­vals for those ti­tles in 1979 and 1980 were Ed­die Law­son and Fred­die Spencer. Cooley whupped them and earned those ti­tles the hard way.

Wes was and is a di­a­betic. He let on to Pops and Fu­jio but no one else. It meant try­ing to man­age a dis­ease that af­fects strength and brain func­tion. “If my blood/sugar was on the low side at 120 [mg/dl] I couldn’t even see the damned track and I had no strength, no en­durance,” he says. “That’s why I had my mo­torhome (when mo­torhomes were a rar­ity) so I could avoid eat­ing track­side hot­dogs and ham­burg­ers. I had to be re­ally care­ful what I ate to con­trol the dis­ the 1981 Suzuka 8-hour they had to fill me up with sugar my blood/sugar was so low.”

So, aside from reg­u­larly dust­ing two soon-to-be world 500cc Cham­pi­ons, wes was covertly deal­ing with a con­di­tion that could have killed him. Like he said: dirty, old, mean sono­fabitch – held in high re­gard by his ri­vals, and most sig­nif­i­cantly by Pops. He started with a cash-strapped yo shim ur a team te stingy von Duhamel’s Kawasakis at wil­low Springs. Duhamel lived in Que­bec, Canada so it was eas­ier and cheaper to get lo­cal hot­shot wes to eval­u­ate things. Cooley im­pressed Pops and Fu­jio to the ex­tent they put him on a yoshimura Kawasaki Z1000 for 1977. He fin­ished sixth

over­all. “In those days it was ba­si­cally me, Steve Mclaugh­lin, Keith Code and Reg Prid­more,” says Wes. “We were all brand new.” AMA su­per­bike would soon be­come huge andwes one of its most gifted, and rightly cel­e­brated, ex­po­nents.

“Pops al­ways gave the im­pres­sion he couldn’t speak any English,” sayswes. “He’d make those kind of groan­ing sounds and say very lit­tle, like you knew he knew what was go­ing on. It wasn’t un­til I was at Yoshimura’s base in North Hol­ly­wood that I found out he spoke English. Fu­jio said, ‘Pops wants to have a word with you in his of­fice’ and so I went up to see him and he started speak­ing to me, so all that time he’d been siz­ing me up and watch­ing and wait­ing. It was a real shock to me, but that was when the whole Yoshimura Suzuki thing came to­gether and he asked me to ride at the Suzuka 8-hour.” His team-mate was Mike Baldwin who was get­ting great re­sults on a Moto Guzzi in the States.

They won the 1978 race, but it was far from easy. “The Suzuki fac­tory would do any­thing for Pops,” sayswes. “This was the first 8-hour which had grown from a 6-hour and it was get­ting to be a big-time race in Ja­pan.” It was in Honda’s back­yard and Soichiro Honda was dead-set on mak­ing it his show. Honda fielded two fac­tory RCB1000 en­durance ma­chines with Jean-claude Che­marin and Chris­tian Léon on one with Char­liewil­liams and Stan­woods on the other.they also had an­other 10 (yes, that’s ten) fac­tory sup­ported teams.

Pops’ ex­pe­ri­ence of the Z1 leant it­self read­ily to the GS1000. Suzuki took care of the run­ning gear, while Pops worked his magic on the en­gine. He hand-ported and hand-ground the cams.they de­vel­oped a two-ring pis­ton and ran Kei­hin CR31S. But the en­gine oc­ca­sion­ally broke valve springs on the dyno. Not great for an 8-hour en­gine.

But the big­gest prob­lem was the clutch. “Suzuki would hap­pily make de­sign changes – but only for Pops,” sayswes. “We’d go three or four laps and the clutch would fail. For days we’d try dif­fer­ent things but it was only the day be­fore the race we put in a clutch that could go the dis­tance.”the stock GS damp­ing springs in the bas­ket were too weak and the riv­ets hold­ing the bas­ket to the pri­mary gear would shear as they be­came coil-bound. Stronger springs were the last-ditch so­lu­tion.

But the win, when it came, putyoshimura firmly on the map.and made Cooley a su­per­star in Ja­pan. A front wheel spin­dle clamp bolt sheared at a


pit-stop, the rear shock mounts frac­tured and af­ter the race it was found a frame down­tube was cracked too .those 700 miles were hard on a newly de­vel­oped bike. RK chains had been worried about the 130bhp the GS pro­duced too and made four spe­cial chains for the team – the first ever O-rings, no less. a sit-up-and-beg stock-look­ing ma­chine had de­feated Honda. this was big news and it made the 1979AMA se­ries big news too.

And Cooley took it.the fi­nal race at Day­tona was can­celled be­cause of rain, and Wes, who was ahead on points any­way took the ti­tle with 58 points to Ron Pierce’s 55 and Fred­die Spencer’s 51. “I was dis­ap­pointed in the way it hap­pened,” says Wes. “But I was com­fort­able with what I was do­ing and with Pops, and we all worked very well to­gether. Pops re­ally was the brains be­hind it all. He’d be stand­ing on the straight­away with his hand cupped over an ear just lis­ten­ing to the bike. He re­ally could tell what a bike needed from the sound. Our com­mu­ni­ca­tion was spot-on. I’d come in and make noises to him about how the bike was be­hav­ing and he’d know what I meant. He’d hand file every­thing to get it right, slides, nee­dles, you name it.and he al­ways did the valves and heads him­self.

“The whole team was a unit. I felt so bad if I crashed and the whole team would be up un­til four in the morn­ing, or all night. But they’d al­ways be there for break­fast at 6:30 come what­ever. I think Pops and Rob Muzzy [Kawasaki] – they were the best.”

Things got a lot hot­ter in 1980. Honda came in TOAMA su­per­bike rac­ing.and they came in for wes Cooley too. “We were at Fuji test­ing and we went into town in the evening to try and get our­selves into trou­ble, came back late and Pops was at the bar drink­ing sake.and Pops never drank, so I asked what was hap­pen­ing and he said, ‘Honda’s in.the money’s go­ing to get out­ra­geous now.’ And sure, some of the team went to Honda, but I just told him: Pops you showed me the way and I’m not jump­ing.and any­way Kawasaki’s was a huge op­er­a­tion too”

There would be drama in the 1980 se­ries. Wes pre­vailed, but only just. Graeme Crosby jet­ted in and won the Day­tona opener, Ed­die Law­son took the next round at alabama and it wasn’t un­til Char­lotte, NC, that wes posted a win. Spencer won at Road at­lanta, then again at Loudon New Hamp­shire.wes was

get­ting enough podi­ums to stay in con­tention but had to win the fi­nal two rounds. He tri­umphed at Roa­d­at­lanta, but by the time the fi­nal race at Day­tona loomed Law­son only had to fin­ish 17th to take the ti­tle. But his Kawasaki broke. His team switched Law­son’s num­bers onto team-mate Davi­dal­dana’s ma­chine – but got caught – and ex­cluded.wes then beat Spencer to claim ti­tle num­ber two.

So if Cooley could beat this qual­ity field in the USA, why didn’t he try his hand in Grands Prix? “I never felt I’d done well in thetransat­lantic se­ries or when I went to Aus­tralia. I was mar­ried, had kids to look af­ter, and I never felt there was any­one I could re­ally learn from.a lot of guys made it and I could see how they had to ad­just to it – a whole dif­fer­ent game.any­way I was with Pops and he called me his brother.”

Loy­alty, way more than lack of am­bi­tion, kept Cooley INAMA rac­ing.the com­pe­ti­tion stayed as in­tense as ever and af­ter fin­ish­ing fourth over­all in the 1982 sea­son­wes went to Kawasaki to join­wayne Rainey in what now be­came a 750cc class. He fin­ished sev­enth in the stand­ings, went back to Suzuki for 1984, then to Honda for 1985. He would not com­plete that sea­son...

“Fred Merkel and me were run­ning up front for the lead and then the race got red-flagged.we both had dif­fer­ent com­pound tyres, mine lasted bet­ter, but Fred was able to change to a new set for the restart and I was just try­ing to hold onto the lead. Next thing I woke up in hospi­tal.”

Wes Cooley re­turned to a track he knew back­wards in 1987 for a 24-hour race at Wil­low Springs, where it all started. He said at the time of his come­back from that mas­sive crash: “I’ve met with a good deal of re­sis­tance from the mo­tor­cy­cle in­dus­try, from my fam­ily, and though I ap­pre­ci­ate their concern I’m the one who has to live in­sid­ewes Cooley’s body.and he’s ad­dicted to rac­ing. I’ve got to give it a try this week­end.” It didn’t work.

“I’d bro­ken 27 bones in my ca­reer and that means I was on the ground way too much. I was stupid to think I could ride for­ever.”the Wes Cooley leg­end has en­dured per­fectly in­tact though.the re­cep­tion af­forded to him at Mid-ohio this year was noth­ing less than this Hall Of Famer de­serves. “I still love the smell of rac­ing,” he says. Now 60 he feels more than qual­i­fied for his job as a re­hab nurse, one with the most com­pre­hen­sive first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence avail­able. “Oh yeah,” he laughs. “I know how to put that one to­gether.” One dirty, old, mean sono­fabitch.

Dream Team Suzuka ’79: Ron Pierce, Pops, Wes

’79 Bol d’or, rid­ing with Ron Pierce: DNF. En­gine trou­ble

Pops Yoshimura – hand tool ge­nius at work

1981: he was never happy with his Transat­lantic form

The style of a cer­ti­fied su­per­bike grand mas­ter

1979 on the all-con­quer­ing Yoshi-gs1000s

Still kickin’ it at 60. Wes at Mid-ohio this year

Test­ing an F1 bike ’83. “Some­where cold”

Al­ways a fans’ favourite

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